The action begins in probably the biggest match in Haikyuu so far, at least given the historical implications of the rivalry. It seems pretty clear that this aspect is an important part of the story – not only are we given an extended look at Nekoma’s old-timer of a coach (who I believe is actually named Nekomata) but a flashback to one of his previous meetings with a Kurasuno squad led by Ukai the elder, the legendary coach I assume we’ll be seeing in the present at some point before the story is done.
There are episodes of Haikyuu that are pretty hard to write about, and this is definitely one of them. It’s a show that speaks for itself quite admirably and relatively speaking offers a minimal (though not microscopic) amount of subtext. We have a classic battle of contrasts between the talented but ragged individuals Crows and the seamlessly unexceptional Cats, who “flow like the blood in their veins”. Between the genius setter Kageyama and the unimposing Kenma, who succeeds by fitting in with the rest of his team like hand-in-pocket (and by shrewdly observing the opponent).
There’s no sense that this is going to be a hate-filled rivalry – I don’t see any reprehensible or even especially irritating guys on either side (though Tsukishima comes close). The game is interesting to watch play out, the cat-and-mouse of Cat and Crow as each side adjusts to what the other is doing. For Nekoma that largely means trying to take Hinata out of the game – and this they accomplish by sliding Inuoka Sou (Ikeda Kyousuke, who was great as Tagi in Ginga e Kickoff) onto him as a shadow. This, of course, represents another hill for Hinata to climb – and unlike in some prior cases, he seems to respond to the challenge with a relatively upbeat frame of mind. What’s happening to him in this game, frustrating as it is, is actually rather flattering if you think about it.
Things get so bad for Hinata that he actually opens his eyes when spiking – with predictably disastrous results, at least at first. We even get to see Kageyama spike in this game, a real rarity – and naturally, his form and technique are perfect. Practice game or not it did feel to me as if Kageyama continuing to feed Hinata over and over despite getting rejected every time was a bit of a dramatic device, though that impression was surely intensified by the fact that Karusano was winning some points through Asahi and Tanaka, none of which were shown to the audience. To be honest I kept wishing Sugawara would get into the action, which I suppose is a sign he’s become my favorite character – though I wouldn’t expect that to happen anytime soon the way Kageyama is playing.